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The Iran-contra churn

THE Iran-contra affair continues to unravel into a jumble of semi-recollected events, falsified or sanitized or leaked memos, and blame-laying on other governments. No interim assessment can do justice to a leadership scandal still in full churn, except to say that nothing that has come to light makes the White House's case look any better, and that no one has yet stepped forward to take full responsibility for what was done.

Surface impressions remain what they were at the outset: The Reagan administration swapped arms to Iran for hostages, despite avowals to do no such thing, with a respectable backup cover of wanting to establish ties to potential post-Khomeini elements. The President approved such an exchange early on. The skimming and diversion of Iran arms funds for the contra effort in Nicaragua may have been the idea of any number of people; it remains that a climate of get-it-done commitment and look-the-other-way obliviousness permitted it to happen.

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Reports of document-doctoring to make it look as though the President could not have authorized actions are but another indication of how slippery accountability for the affair has become.

If the President had really wanted National Security Council aides Oliver North and John Poindexter to testify openly, he could have brought pressure on them to do so. He could have asked that they be discharged from the service for seeking refuge from testimony by taking the Fifth Amendment. While private citizens cannot be compelled to do so, the law permits public officials to be discharged for taking the Fifth. A general discharge from their military duties would have meant lessened pension and other benefits for Poindexter and North. We think such a course would be unfair to the potential defendants in criminal cases. Nonetheless, the President was not as entirely helpless before his aides' reluctance to testify as he has claimed.

In light of this unsettled picture of the Iran affair, the Senate Intelligence Committee was right to withhold its initial ``summary.'' The Senate and House inquiries should be allowed the time they need to sift painstakingly through the evidence for individual and policy accountability. The special prosecutor's work should likewise not be rushed.

As to recovering its credibility, the White House is not entirely at the mercy of the Iran debacle. It can rely on the soundness and clarity of its decisions from here on to carry the day. Ultimately, this is all that any effective leadership can depend on.

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